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TomTom XL 340s GPS

TomTom recently introduced the XL 340S, a $249 GPS unit with a 4.3" widescreen. It does not come with a traffic subscription or antenna, but does have text to speech (speaks street names). It also lacks an SD card slot, does not do bluetooth, and comes with no a/c adapter (the usb cord can be used to precharge it when connected to a computer).

Easy PortUpon opening the box of the loaner unit that the PR folks from TomTom sent, I was surprised to see there was no dashboard mounting arm. Upon further inspection, however, I found a small two-part, L-shaped, hinged device that opens to connect on the back of the unit, and it has a suction cup on the bottom. Unlike other brands with large articulating dash mounts, this one keeps the unit very low and close to the dash on the provided disk. (This poses somewhat of a problem when connecting and disconnecting the power plug on the bottom front of the unit. It is hard to get a grip on it.)

When first turning on the unit (the on/off button gives no positive feedback), it stops on a screen that mentions IQ Routes and won't budge beyond it. Restarting the unit, reading the flimsy get started manual, and resetting the unit all fail to get me past that screen.

Going to TomTom's site reveals that there is software called TomTom Home that lets you update the unit. One has to download the software because no disk is included. Upon doing this, and adding some minor updates, finally gets me past the roadblock to a series of set up screens. Set up was logical, if not ultra-quick.

TomTom 340s menuWhen the unit is turned back on for its first test run, it is immediately clear that there is no main menu screen, because you are brought to a map of your current location. This change is rather disconcerting for owners of Garmin or Magellan units who are used to being asked what they want to do: "Go to" or "Map" or "Settings". In fact, the way you get to the menu is tapping anywhere on the map itself. Who knew?

In checking out the supposedly seven million points of interest (typical better databases of competitors only have six million), I discovered a rather annoying omission. Besides not having supermarkets as a category, when one enters a store name or any POI name, you get a list with that name and the number of miles away from your current location it is. You are not told the address or even the city where that place actually is until after you select it to navigate to. What a pain! If I am interested in going to a specific Staples, let's say, without the address or city, it is guesswork to choose the right store. Some searches are relatively quick, if not instant, but others make you wait for what seems like an interminable time.

Taking the unit on its maiden voyage, I noticed that acquisition of the satellites is not fast when the unit has not been used for a while - maybe 30-45 seconds. Other times, (and most often) it seems to find the signal almost instantly. The screen is very bright in the garage, but washes out (like Garmin and Magellan) in bright light. It is still readable, but nowhere even close to vivid. The street you are on is displayed in very small type at the bottom of the map, but the street name of the next maneuver is displayed very clearly at the top of the screen.

The text to speech female voice ("Susan") is very loud at 100% thanks to a two-inch speaker on the back of the unit. Her pronunciation is very good and clear, but on some street names even listening to it three times does not help. For example, she doesn't realize that the abbreviation, "Gov't" as in "Govt Center" needs to be pronounced with multiple syllables. The man's voice, Dave, is also very clear but may be too deep.

"Susan" seems to talk less than her competitors. When you go off course, there is no oral warning that the route is being recalculated. The unit just does it silently but very quickly. I want to know that I missed a turn. There is also no helpful "ding" at the point of a maneuver like you find on Magellans. Susan also talks less when counting down the distance to a turn. You might hear "turn right in 250 feet" [with no mention of the street] and then "turn right on Maple Street" [with no mention that this is the corner to do it]. An additional announcement that the turn was say 50 or 100 feet away would have been helpful.

In terms of clarity of navigation, this unit has less difficulty than Garmin or Magellan in my neighborhood with many complex intersections. In simpler areas, the navigation and commands are better than the competition. At the point of an actual maneuver, the unit typically will give you two commands, such as "turn right, and then proceed to the end of the street" or "turn right, then stay left". This way you know what's coming up next. When you have reached your destination, however, it does not tell you if it is on the left or right side of the street.

Of particular interest is the way the unit adjusts the routing when you go off course. Unlike competitors, the TomTom tends to create a new alternate route to your destination rather than suggesting making a u-turn, or "go back." This is particularly helpful when you know where you are going and you happen to prefer a route different from what Susan has planned for you. It is almost as if she is a mind reader.

TomTom uses historical data of actual travel times when plotting routes (IQ Routes). But before you get the idea that the navigation/routing system is perfect, it is not. At times the unit will say to go left or straight, the viewing screen clearly shows a right turn has to be made. In another case, when I was trying to get to a BJ's Wholesale Club, after selecting it from the list of points of interest, it brought me to a residential neighborhood with no store in sight. Apparently, the database listed the store on Cedar Avenue in Stoneham, when in fact it was on Cedar Street. A built-in system allow users to correct map mistakes, but correcting addresses in the points of interest directory is not a specific choice.

TomTom 340sOn the highway, the lane assist feature is very helpful and well-executed. Green arrows for which lanes to use are big and bold, as are the overhead simulated road signs.

In the lower right hand corner of the screen the unit displays the speed limit and the speed you are going. Go five miles an hour faster than the limit, and a warning beep is sounded by default. Tracking the posted speed limit is particularly good. Within 100 yards of the posted limit changing from 55 to 65 mph on a local highway, the unit made the appropriate change.

Some features you may want to use when driving are a bit difficult to find or use. To cancel the current navigation, you have to tap on the bottom right of the screen to access the menu with that choice - not an intuitive maneuver. Trying to add an additional stop between where you are now and your final destination, did not bring up the more typical and intuitive option to add this place to your trip. To go to two or more places on your trip, you have to select "itinerary" deeply buried in the main menu. There you create a list of the places you want to visit and it navigates to the first one when you give the okay. It did not navigate to any of the subsequent ones, however. That could be user error, because of lack of clear instructions on how to include waypoints and destinations.

Going online to check the instructions in the manual (since none is provided, either on disk or in printed format) proved frustrating because there is no manual even online for the 340S!

The unit comes with one year of free gas price updates - a handy feature but for the fact that the unit only receives pricing information when connected to a computer with an Internet connection.

All in all, the way the 340S navigates is quite good, though not perfect. The general clarity of the speech and volume is excellent. The lack of a screen that doesn't wash out in bright light is disappointing, and the guesswork one has to do in figuring out which point of interest is the one you really want is frustrating.

May 18,2009

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Consumer World®, launched in 1995, is a public service, non-commercial consumer resource guide with over 2000 links to everything "consumer" on the Internet. Edgar Dworsky, an avid bargain hunter, is the founder of Consumer World, editor of MousePrint.org – an educational site devoted to exposing the fine print loopholes in advertising, and a former Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.



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